Sunday, April 24, 2005

my grandmas and their kitchens

The pictures in my mind of my grandmothers and their kitchens resemble Grant Wood paintings. My Grandma Allen had come from Missouri to Illinois as a house girl when she was a teen. She learned to bake, cook and sew for a family that included hired hands. Rising before sunrise every morning, she began her day baking pies for the men who came to work on the farm.

Years later when she was raising three boys through the 1920’s and 30’s, she canned and dried all the food they would need during the months when the garden sat dormant. My dad often told me that they really didn’t know that there was a depression because their larder was so full of tasty, wonderful foods. Combined with fresh meat and baked goodies, they lived like kings.

Staying with my Grandma Allen for weeks at a time during summer vacation, I remember fabulous bread and butter pickles, vegetable relish, mince meat pies, and, of course, fried chicken. At least once while I was there, Grandma would start the day by asking if I would like to have fried chicken for supper. When I replied with a resounding “yes”, she sharpened her butcher knife and headed out the back door to the barn yard.

I watched from the window as she chased down the fattest hen and, in one swift swing, had it bobbing headless along the sidewalk. She then scooped it up and marched to the shed where she plucked and cleaned it in short order. I was always somewhat horrified and a little sad but those thoughts disappeared as soon as the aroma of that chicken frying in pure lard rose from her old cook stove. Mashed potatoes piled high, butter drizzling down the miniature white mountain and topped with milky chicken gravy were the centerpiece of dinner. Pickled beets, garden grown tomato slices, and baking soda biscuits completed the meal. And we washed it all down with iced tea in state fair glasses. Long into the night I could smell that savory fried chicken and wondered how she did it. I was certain the secret was all in the faded bib apron that was the necessary part of her daily uniform!

My mom’s mom, Grandma Hewitt, was my “city grandma.” Living in a pre-Civil War era home in Farmington, she boasted 9 children and 36 grandchildren. Her house was across the street from the old Chapman School so on most days I would take my after school snack in front of the fireplace in her dining room. The tea kettle was already singing when I walked in the door and hung my coat and book bag on the hooks in what she called her “vestibule.” She brought out the works….tea, cream, sugar, cookies, muffins, and whatever else she had been baking that morning.

My fondest memories of those afternoons with her are of listening as she read Scripture to me, sharing what she had learned in the hours she had spent reading that day. Her old King James was underlined and key passages were noted. The pages were wrinkled and worn; in a way they were like she was. Those times were precious and as I look back on them I am struck by how grown-up I felt as we took tea and talked about Jesus and my school day. She did not treat me like a child she had to endure. She was always glad to see me; she had prepared for my coming. My life mattered to her. What more could a child want?

Grandma Hewitt’s high point of cooking came at Christmastime. She began baking and freezing cookies right after Thanksgiving. Around December 15th or so, she brought out all sorts of boxes she had been saving throughout the year and covered them with wrapping paper. Then she lined them with tissue paper and piled a menagerie of cookie cutter snowmen and Santas, Mexican wedding balls, oatmeal raisin crispers, chocolate chippers, jam print cookies, and, of course, fudge, neatly and carefully into each package. The 10 foot long oval dining table that had once seated 9 bouncing children was soon covered in brightly colored boxes with ribbons and bows for those 36 grandchildren and eventually their children!

It seems like far too many years ago since I enjoyed those times with my grandmas. Now I am "grandmama" and it is my turn to build kitchen memories for my precious little ones. God has been so gracious, to give me the treasure of grandchildren nearby, little ones who know where I keep chocolate in the kitchen, tiny fingers to hold my cookies and say "Thank you, grandmama. I love you grandmama." What tremendous blessings, these are, the blessing of children's children, the blessing of grandmas.


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